Darling, We Don’t Play With Our Vulvas At The Table

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girl-pouting-at-table Image via Shutterstock

It happened yet again. As I was sitting at the table for dinner with my children, I noticed my daughter’s hand fishing around under her skirt.

“We don’t play with our vulvas at the table. Go wash your hands and finish your food,” I scolded. She nodded, ran off, washed her hands, and resumed picking at her dinner.

Small children, they touch themselves. A lot. It’s fascinating to them. Small children have no sense of shame or disgust or fear of their bodies. A body is what it is. It does what it does. And everything that it does is kind of amazing, because they’re not old enough for lower back pain. It’s not sexual, it’s just… fact.

The first time I caught one of my kids playing with their genitals, I said nothing. I was momentarily paralyzed with indecision. One thing I knew for a fact I did not want to do was to shout, “No!” or “Stop!” What good could that possibly do? Sure, I would be spared the awkwardness of catching my child playing with her genitals on the living room floor, but what kind of lesson is that? To fear or ignore your own vagina?

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I thought about it for two days, and of course she gave me a second chance to react.

“Sweetie, we don’t play with our vulvas in the living room,” I said. Which sounded ridiculous and strange, but nonetheless true. Why is everything with little kids “we” statements? “It’s okay to touch your vulva, but people are private, and it’s a private thing. The only places where you should touch your vulva are in the bathroom or in your bedroom. If you want to play with your vulva, please go to the bedroom.”

She smiled and did, without question, because compartmentalizing where you do perform activities makes sense to little kids.

“We don’t eat in the bathroom, and we don’t play with our vulvas in the living room,” became the new mantra. And yes, eventually it became, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.”

I’m what some people call “sex positive.” That doesn’t mean I talk with my four-year-olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don’t pretend it’s something other than it is.

As parents, we lie all the time. About the Easter Bunny or Santa or the Tooth Fairy, about how long ten minutes is, about whether or not we remembered they wanted to have grilled cheese for dinner again, we lie a lot. But one thing I never lie about is sex.

I don’t want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don’t tell them about cabbage patches or storks, I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.

I’ve had conversations with other moms about having “the talk.” I don’t think my kids and I will have that particular talk, because they already know. And we talk about it often- kids are obsessive creatures. We read Where Did I Come From? and What Makes A Baby which together cover every aspect of the subject. We can talk about IVF and c-sections, because both of those are part of the story of their births, and we can talk about the fact that yes, mommy and daddy still have sex regardless of our plans for conception. And when they’re older, we’ll start talking about contraception.

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Because lying to your kids about sex helps nobody. Telling them that sex is “only between mommies and daddies” is a lie that leads to confused, hormone charged teenagers. Telling them that sex is “only something that happens when two people love each other very much” is a lie that causes hormone charged teenagers to confuse “love” with “lust,” or “obsession.” It leads to leaps of logic like, “If I have sex with them, we must be in love.” Or worse- “If I love them, I have to have sex with them.” And how many teenage tragedies are based on that misconception?

The truth is human beings, almost universally, like sex. It feels good. I’s supposed to feel good. If it didn’t, the human race would die out. The truth is sex isn’t special and magical just because it’s sex. The truth is you can have spectacular sex with strangers who’s names you don’t even know. The truth is that just because you can, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

And that’s what sex positive parenting really is. Not telling kids lies about sex to keep them from behaviors we don’t think are healthy. It’s telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices.

It’s telling them that sex is good, but it’s dangerous if you’re not careful. It’s teaching them to require their partners to use condoms, to buy their own condoms if they’re planning on having sex. It’s teaching them that while sex feels good, they can feel good on their own too. (Just not at the table.) That while sex combined with love is often the best sex- transcendent sex- that grows the bond of love and builds a closeness that is almost impossible to find otherwise, sex isn’t always like that- even with people you love. That sex can lead to pregnancy and disease, even with protection, so engaging in it is a commitment to deal with any consequences.

It’s telling them they’re not wrong, or sinful, or bad, if they have sexual feelings. Or even if they have sex. It’s teaching them that sex happens, whether people always make good choices or not. And it’s giving them the tools to ensure that when they’re ready, they’re smart and cautious and conscientious.

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There’s a lot of black and white comparisons when it comes to sex ed. Some people think once kids hit puberty, if they don’t have a strong fear of sex they’ll have as much as they can, as often as they can. There’s a lot of abstinence-only sex ed, based on teaching kids, “SEX IS SCARY! DON’T DO IT!” and it’s about the least successful program anyone has ever invented. In states with abstinence-only sex ed, teen pregnancy rates go up and up and up.

Telling children the truth about sex isn’t giving permission for them to have it- and this is the most important part- because nobody has the right to deny them permission for sex but themselves.

And that’s the thing I try to keep in mind when I say things like, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” Sex is something that ONLY happens when both people WANT it to happen. And that means that the only people in the entire world with any kind of say over whether or not my children have sex is them.

I don’t get to tell my kids they have to have sex, but I also don’t get to tell them they can’t. They’re in charge. Your body, your decision.

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I never want to be responsible for setting the precedent that another person gets to tell them what to do with their bodies, and especially with their sexuality. I don’t want to be the gateway for a manipulative, potentially abusive boyfriend or girlfriend.

So I teach boundaries. Appropriate places. Hygiene. I teach my children that nobody is allowed to touch their bodies without permission. When we get in tickle fights and they say, “Stop!” I stop.

And when we talk about my pregnant friends, we talk about uteruses and sperm and eggs.

Most of the time, it’s not uncomfortable. Most of the time, the conversation lasts fifteen seconds.

Someday the conversation is going to be a lot uglier. Someday, we’ll have to talk about rape, and explicit and enthusiastic consent. Someday we’ll have to talk about healthy masturbation and pornography and realistic expectations of sex and sex partners and body image and a lack of shame for their bodies. And those conversations are not going to be as brief or straightforward.

But I’m ready. Whenever that day comes, I’m prepared. Because the groundwork is there.

“We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” It’s absurd, but it’s got all the important pieces. It’s a micro-lesson in safety and consent and social propriety. I don’t think I’ll be able to say, “We don’t lose our virginity in the back seat of a car after a Prom party,” with a straight face, but I will be able to say, “We don’t have sex without thinking long and hard about it first, and we certainly don’t do it without being careful, and being safe, and being totally confident in the maturity of our partner and our ability to handle the repercussions if we get a disease or get pregnant.”

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Because that’s true. We don’t.

But I like that when that time comes, I’m part of the “we.” If I can tell my kids “we” have to be careful, they’ll know that no matter what happens, I’m in their corner. I’ve got their backs. Even if “we” make bad choices, I’ll still be there to help make things right again.

Related post: My Daughter Masturbates – Is That Normal?

Comments

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  1. 1

    says

    Hello Lea. I think you’re doing an exceptionally good job about compartmentalizing things with your child. I was raised to believe that genitals are dirty, and touching them is not only disgusting but deserves a punishment as well. Seldom can you see parents these days who understand that children touch themselves but not in a sexual way. Kids are curious all the time and they want to explore new things. Thank you for posting this.

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    • 2

      Larry Smith says

      WTF? This is by far the most ridiculous BS I’ve attempted to read. “We don’t play with our vulva’s at the table”… More liberal political correctness passed onto kids. I lost 30 seconds of my life by reading the 1st two paragraphs.

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      • 3

        Emily says

        Uh, lighten up and read on. The first few paragraphs are a comical segue into an actual discussion on the topic. It’s not meant to be liberal hippie BS. It’s a rather frank discussion on another approach to teaching children about their bodies and about sex.
        But speaking of being “politically correct,” what exactly is the matter with that? Positive change is a good thing, in my opinion. If you don’t want to talk to your daughter about her vulva, then don’t. But you ought not chide other people for wanting to give their kids an appropriate, shameless education.

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      • 4

        Kat says

        LOL, yeah, this is why the more conservative the state, the higher the teen pregnancy rate. It’s all purity rings and true love waits and sex ed is “liberal BS”, meanwhile all of those church kids are screwing like rabbits with no birth control.

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      • 6

        Siobhan Elizabeth says

        You know, I’ve recently noticed that the term “political correctness” is only used by people opposed to what falls under that term (I can’t remember the last time I saw the phrase used by a liberal or progressive person). I certainly don’t use it anymore, it was a fashionable phrase for awhile, but not anymore. It was useful for a time, but the phrase is so easily twisted around and misunderstood, it’s useless now. Now, the people who still like to use “politically correct” are using it to describe something they see as a concept or idea that is unthought-out, stupid liberalness. But what this writer talks about here isn’t something “unthought-out” she’s clearly really thought this through. And she’s right when she says that abstinence-only sexual education actually results in more teenage pregnancies that more comprehensive sex ed that teaches that sex is serious, it has serious consequences, and only those prepared to accept those consequences should have sex. These same programs also teach kids that if they are going to have sex, they should know how to protect themselves and teach them how to obtain contraception and use it properly. Not only does this result in fewer teen pregnancies, but in more teens actually delaying their first sexual experience. Kids in abstinence-only programs lose their virginity earlier than kids in a program that gives kids more info than just “sex is wrong, and dirty, and sinful, so just don’t do it!” Because everyone should know that when you tell a kid not to do something “just because I say so” (which is basically what abstinence-only sex ed does), it just makes kids want to do the very thing you are telling them not to do

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      • 7

        katie says

        umm, what about this has anything to do with ‘political correctness’? what this author is advocating, if anything, is talking about one’s body in a way that is ANATOMICALLY correct, in the context of what is appropriate in public vs. in private.

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  2. 8

    Alison says

    Agree 100%! My son, now eight, was handling himself like a porn star at three months. It was somewhat traumatizing for me to see when I changed his diaper lol. He is constantly touching himself. I just keep telling him if he is going to play with himself, go to his room to do it. Over and over. Hopefully he will get it someday.

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    • 9

      Mary says

      LMAO! The running joke when my son (now 14) was little was that someone must’ve told him about the weenie thief- he was afraid that if he let go of it, it’d get stolen!

      No worries, it will change. Teens go through a weird transformation that turns them into secretive creatures who hide out in their bedrooms. All I can say is, teach him to do his own laundry. lol It’ll save you both embarrassment later on.

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  3. 11

    says

    As a now DH but previous single Dad wit ha toddler I applaud your choices. I raised my son the same way. We answered question with age appropriate answers. Usually the simplest answers sufficed. My Ex and I decided not to have my son circumcised. As he got older he had questions about why he was different than the other boys in the school locker room. I explained it as best I could and then came a question I had NOT expected. He asked if I was circumcised. I answered honestly and told him yes. Then he asked if he could see mine. Instead of telling him no and risking giving him the impression that nudity was somehow I told him yes but later tonight when I take a shower. I wasn’t stalling, although I honestly hoped he would forget, but I had to drop him off at school and go to work at the time he asked that question. Yes, it was slightly embarrassing to show my then 8 year old son my penis but I truly felt he deserved and answer to his questions and back then it was the time before the internet. After my shower I called him into my room and showed him the difference. I explained the different names for the parts of the penis and answered his questions. All in all the “show N Tell” part lasted all of 30 seconds. My son still remembers that day and does so with pride and still thanks me for it. He has told me that he knew more about sex than his friends because their parents raised them like I was raised, that our genitals were dirty etc. Now that he is an adult we can laugh about it. He has also said that my parenting style has prepared him to answer the tough questions for when and if he chooses to have children..

    I wish more parents would figure out that children being nude and discovering themselves is a natural part of growing up and nothing to be ashamed of. My son knew this. But he also knew that it was inappropriate to be nude around strangers unless we were in an environment such as a nudist beach or locker room etc. He also knew the boundaries about other people touching him and that he had the right to say no.

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    • 12

      ButteryMuffyn says

      I’m English and living in the USA, with 4 kids, 2 boys and 2 girls. My husband and my boys have not be circumcised, we believe it to be a barbaric practice, and isn’t the norm in England anyway. My boys have never asked to see their fathers penis, simply because it’s never been something hidden. Showering together when they are younger meant it never became an issue! Interestingly, I had never seen a circumcised penis until I was in my 40s, when a friends child was playing in the garden naked. It was ……. different ;)

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    • 13

      Mom says

      I’m not a prude but I think a “show and tell” using your genitals was taking it just a tad too far. I know it would creep me out if one of my parents exposed themselves to me….. Different strokes for different strokes I suppose.

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      • 14

        Sasha says

        That it would creep *you* out is irrelevant, considering in the same story he makes it crystal clear that the whole reason the show’n tell happened was because the boy went out of his way to ask for it, and clearly is proud of that incident now, as an adult.

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  4. 19

    chill says

    I have a friend whose young daughter (1st grade) would masturbate herself to sleep. They allowed it, but it was difficult to get her out of the habit when she started doing sleepovers. I’m not that close to them to know if she still does it 3 years later, but I assume she does.

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    • 21

      Mary says

      It’s working out for me! I discuss these topics all the time with my teens, as an extension of the same conversations I had with them as littles as this writer is having with her child now. I’d rather have them get their information and guidance from me than from their idiot friends. (All teens are idiots. It’s just a fact of life… They’re intelligent, creative, wonderful creatures… but their judgement centers are not yet developed.)

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      • 22

        ButteryMuffyn says

        I have 4 kids (13, 14, 19 and 22) and always talked to them about anything, just age appropriate! I have no shame :) Anyway, when he was around 18 or so, my now 22 yr old son took it upon himself to tell me that even though I was more than happy to talk to them, they were not always so happy to talk to me. Even though we have always had open relationships with the kids, apparently when they become teens it’s far easier for them to talk to a relative stranger about sex/intimate feelings than it is to talk to parents. I respect that.

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    • 23

      Zoe says

      Well, it worked and it didn’t. Always talked honestly to my kids, one boy one girl. We were able to have all kinds of great discussions as they grew up. When she hit her teens, I got a box of condoms and a cucumber and had a little workshop. I also made very clear that when she felt she was getting to where sex was a near thing, to let me know, and we’d go to the clinic so she could get contraception. The thing about teenagers is that they are becoming total individuals, and while they may be completely cool about talking with some things with you, other things – not so much. So, while I knew she knew how to use condoms, and was on the pill, and she’d talked to me about these things, and also knew a condom on every penis every time, because pills don’t prevent STDs, she was not forthcoming about a freshly-discovered latex sensitivity, nor that her period didn’t stop once she was on hormonal birth control. Had she talked with me, we could’ve addressed these issues. But, instead, she just took herself off the pill without consultation, and got ahold of some non-latex condoms – that broke. She had a baby boy 6 weeks past her 16th birthday, because we were a staunchly pro-choice household, and HER choice was to have her baby. *sigh*
      He’s 8 and completely amazing, she’s married to a really good young man, and they have a 3 month old daughter. And she’s got a 10 year IUD. She’s 24.
      My son was a fabulous listener and vicarious learner. He’s 22, has had sex with two long-term girlfriends, and no babies no babies no babies. :-D

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    • 24

      Tori says

      I have a similar approach to parenting and my daughter is now getting close to her sixteenth birthday. She openly discusses her sexuality with me. She is still a virgin, though several of her friends are not. We’ve had the discussion losing your virginity is not a race or a contest. We’ve discussed birth control and that if she needs it, she needs to ask for it and we will provide it for her. I have a latex sensitivity, so we weren’t even going that route. And we’ll be putting her on the pill soon (though I had intended for that to be before now). She even came to me a while back and asked if I would get her a sex toy… and I took her shopping for it. If you teach your child that they can talk to you and that you can be trusted with the information they give you, they will come to you. My goal isn’t to keep her a virgin forever and I have to accept that she’s going to make a choice and that it’s her choice to make. I’ve told her what the age of consent laws in our state are and what that means. I’ve told her that I would appreciate her respecting that law for herself and the person she chooses to eventually have sex with, but will understand if she doesn’t wait for sex until she’s 17 (with the recommendation that she not get someone else’s child in trouble with that decision). So yes, it works later in life. You just have to keep your end of the bargain.

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      • 25

        me says

        oh my god why in gods name would you encourage her not to TRY condoms because You have a latex SENTSITIVITY?!?!?!
        I have a latex sensitivity too. It actually causes me pain. And that is no reason at all to have sex without latex condoms. Sure its sore and painful afterwards, but you know what is worse? Herpes. And to encourage your daughter to have sex (and yes, “putting” her on the pill while telling others you wish she would stay a virgin is still encouraging her), AND encourage her not to even try condoms… that makes you an epic thunder cunt.
        Not only might she NOT have a problem with condoms, but sensitivity to them is usually extremely minor. Most people don’t have it as bad as I do, and I continued to use them until I found myself in a life long relationship. There are a number of ways to reduce the sensitivity without teaching your child not to protect herself from stds (which can kill her).

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        • 26

          Ashley says

          You probably could have toned that down a little bit. But, I do agree with you; just not in so many words. I do think that you’re putting your daughter in a potentially dangerous situation by not even giving her the chance to try and use the latex condoms. It’s, by far, better to be in pain afterwards than to have an STD in the long-run. Your choice, but I hope that you decide to do the better thing for her. Or, better yet, that she’ll eventually have the common sense to get them herself.

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          • 27

            Al says

            The idea of “putting” your daughter on the pill seems really weird to me. I would allow a teen to go on the pill had they decided after a discussion (or, just decided off their own steam without my input), but I would expect it to be their decision and not at all mine.
            The pill is birth control but it is not a preventative of STIs.
            Latex free condoms are available which are effective at preventing STIs and pregnancy and will obviously not irritate a latex allergy/sensitivity.
            There is a genetic component to allergies but your having a sensitivity doesn’t guarantee that she does too, and your preferences or allergies should not be having an impact on the safer sex practices of your daughter, and might actually put her in significant danger of conditions such as HIV/AIDS, HPV (linked to cervical cancer), and other common STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea which are linked to infertility an other more dangerous complications.

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  5. 28

    BeeMoney says

    BRAVO!! One thousand times bravo. You are creating a foundation for your children’s sexual health (both physical and psychological) as well as allowing them a safe space to discuss these issues and understand they are normal. I hope that other parents will follow your example!!

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  6. 29

    says

    I can completely relate to every aspect of this article. My daughter is almost 6 and I know this talk is just around the corner. I feel the same way about as being as honest as possible, I’m terrified of the day coming, but I’m preparing for it now so I’ll be ready. Great article.

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